Monday, May 24, 2021

It's Not Too Much to Say the World Changed that Day

Gay Day, 2021: in memory of John-Fredrick Williams

The meanings of holidays, as often as not made dysmorphic over time by social change and the random happenstance of Fate, almost always undergo a metamorphosis. After 52 years the insurrection which marked the Stonewall Uprising in June 1969 may seem to the growing majority of people today who either weren’t born until after that date or weren’t old enough to understand it, to be a kind of mythic tale - a myth uninformed by recent well-meaning attempts to expand our understanding of sexualities as veritably incalculable. But those who were aware of the uprising when it happened could feel in that contemptuously homophobic era the potential threat of its killing bite. An ad hoc posse of gay men and lesbians in the Stonewall Bar on Christopher Street rose up against the police who, as was their periodic wont, raided the bar because that’s what you did with gay bars back then – true, may also not entirely incidentally have justified it because like nearly all gay bars it was run by the Mafia. But mostly the brute push in it was homophobia, the kind of easy hate thought to be a normal response to any, but especially this, Godforsaken homosexual perversity.

It’s not too much to say that the world changed that day. Its significance was given public form in 1970 with the first gay liberation march, embarked upon with trepidation: most expected they’d be excoriated verbally or worse. But it turns out they weren’t. What began as about 200 people in Christopher Street became thousands of people once the parade reached Central Park.

New York City was ready for this. The world was, too. Indeed, the city and much of the world had already through the mid to late 60s undergone a moral and political sea change: Viet Nam, the “sexual revolution,” the proliferation of psychedelic drugs, the deaths of two Kennedys, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. All of this, and, again, an undisguised sexual revolution: the pill made sex democratic between heterosexual women and men; overnight, as it seemed, great realms of morality had shifted. Our notions of gender were starting to soften. But there was also a different more concerted power in the push for the liberation of whole ranges of human variety, African Americans, women, Latinos, Asians and by 1969 and 1970 gay men and lesbians. I was born in 1951, which meant I was 18 in 1969, and although I was off to college in Vermont, I continually returned to New York City in that first stretch of time, and moved into it for keeps in 1975. The city always promised and delivered to me something brutally, gorgeously, alluringly alive. At this stage (ages 16 through 23) my life amounted overall to an extraordinary if often harrowing thrill. The giant mass of my generation marked a new human condition, and therefore a very new moment in social history. Never had so many people rethought so completely and freely who they might be, could be, would be. This liberty to re-invent yourself was a very strange psychic condition. In the sway and the roll of it, you can’t always find your center of gravity, or your heart or mind.

Zoom 50 years later to the Pride Parade, by this time a global celebration, not least because it marked the 50-year anniversary of the Stonewall uprising. Then think back last year to the utter vacancy of 2020, the first year the gay parade was canceled. And think, if you will, of the potent tangles and cessations of life through the imposed prison of the pandemic, the evictions from hotels that had housed them of so many mentally ill people who now roamed and still roam the streets, howling at the sky. And think, if I might ask you to think now, of my dear friend John-Fredrick Williams who died back in March, not of covid, but of a heart attack, physically deriving from his having been born with a weak heart (unthinkably, he was born with congestive heart failure).

John-Fredrick Williams 1980s

John-Fredrick evinced all of the conditions of life I have just touched on – from delicacy to uproar. There were times he was homeless, there were times he was a powerful political activist in Act Up and Occupy Wall Street, there were times he would sing in the streets with a dear much-loved friend of his – he was very musical and very brilliant. He wrote reams of poetry, he was as often as not to be seen walking around in a kind of flowered frock worn over, depending on how cold it was, jeans or pulled-up socks and hiking boots. His hair was always a surprise: usually long, and dyed in unsuspected colors. He had small intense eyes – indeed a power of intensity I don’t think I’ve seen the like of in anyone else. John-Fredrick and I met through the AOL chat rooms, sort of zapping odd clever strange phrases at each other, afraid to meet. But eventually we did meet. And we managed a kind of sex, rough and sweet and made up on the spot. We never – and I wonder generally if John-Frederick with anyone quite ever – found a completely habitable space to share. But he may have come somewhat closer to that with me than with most. I don’t know. Like Quentin Crisp, his friends were met mostly one-on-one – and I suspect he was marvelously attuned to each of those friends, when they didn’t piss the hell out of him, which was frequently. He was no stranger to pleasures and pains of extreme varieties. He felt very close to me. He paid a tight attention to my poetry and my singing and my writing and my art. He was one of those people who love with such an utter completeness that you truly don’t know how to respond – except to accept it. He got into you like a serum; you would be affected by him forever. The bracelet you see me wearing here is one he gave me. I don’t know its provenance. I’m not given to wearing jewelry. But I suspect I’ll wear this for the rest of my life.

John-Frederick Williams 2020

What does John-Fredrick have to do with this history of gay liberation? He is central to it. He IS it. He lived a kind of aimed and passionate and irresponsible and deeply affectionate life. He was the human being in some ways we all ought to have looked up to for guidance. But he’s gone now. And there are few people, I think, who will remember him, beyond the handful who, like me, couldn’t bear to forget him. He has no family left. In this way, dare I say, he is us. He is every gay man and woman. He is the human spirit so tremblingly organically constituted that if you could make real contact with him, you would know so very much more about being alive. Few of us will be remembered. Eventually none of us will be. But none of us doesn’t harbor a miracle. I think that’s what John-Fredrick would want me to convey as his message. Suck dick, fuck butt, kiss ass, laugh like a maniac, cry out of love, rail out of hate, be the whole business of you, tenderly, roughly, and share it at least once with someone else. He shared himself with me. And some very lucky others. And he remains for me perhaps the most striking example of the Believably Liberated Gay Homo Sapiens, which is to say the Freest Human Spirit, the incarnate goal, I think probably exactly as Christ was and was meant to have been, of Divinity become mud and ash, a frail detritus of life, as delicate a breath of nothing at the end as he was a clarion call to singing at the top of his lungs at the beginning. Celebrate this time in June of the liberation of Eros with someone like him in mind. We’ll all go like he went. Unrecollected, in some ways unspent, but touched by a god’s fire. None of us is exempt from anything. Including the glory of having to some degree lived unashamedly as who we are.


Guy Kettelhack is the author and co-author of over 25 nonfiction books, including several on gay topics: e.g., DANCING AROUND THE VOLCANO, EASING THE ACHE, THE WIT & WISDOM OF QUENTIN CRISP & VASTLY MORE THAN THAT. He fled the Long Island suburbs where he was born and grew up, and then climbed up and four years later out of the mountains of Vermont after a requisite sojourn at Middlebury College, to make a life in New York City - which he always knew would be, and has proven over 50 years to remain, the city of his heart. You see him here displaying the aforementioned inscrutable bracelet John-Frederick Williams gave him.